Adventure Gamers Awards
Bloober Team, oh dear, sweet Bloober Team. Not only have you decided on a name that I cannot manage to read or say without chuckling, but your games have been some of the most difficult for me to evaluate in all my years writing for Adventure Gamers. I’ve spent more time erasing and rewriting large chunks of my Layers of Fear reviews than I typically spend doing a full write-up. In large part this is because these games are clearly the result of supremely talented developers chasing a strong vision and seemingly hitting the mark they were aiming for. The problem is, that mark often leaves me totally cold and I’ve struggled to put into words just why that is – and I’m not sure if there's anything more frustrating for a reviewer than not quite being able to express why you don’t like the end result.
The original Layers of Fear told the tale of a painter in Victorian England as he succumbed to a dark obsession with creating his masterpiece, a painting so disturbing it cost him his sanity and his family. The game consisted of a strictly linear series of set-pieces connected by corridors full of jump scares, spooky imagery, and disconnected scraps of dialogue that implied, rather than told, the story. The pacing was relentless, with nearly every room foisting a burst of paranormal activity and frights on the player, to the point where it became almost comically predictable. What started with so much promise ended up being deeply disappointing overall.
Then came >observer_, a cyberpunk mystery heavily inspired by Blade Runner, about a cybernetically enhanced detective with the ability to dive into people’s minds. Despite plenty of structural similarities to Layers of Fear, >observer_ turned the first game’s failures into strengths, telling a disturbing and visually exhilarating tale of a dystopian future where personal privacy has been thoroughly dismantled by the state. This time around, players were given characters and a world to latch onto, something that infused meaning into its lengthy wild “dream” sequences.
Given the dramatic improvement in >observer_, I approached Layers of Fear 2 with the cautious optimism that Bloober Team would take the lessons learned from their second game rather than revisiting the template of their first.
Alas, the sequel is in every way another Layers of Fear game. I could almost get away with reprinting my review of the first one and changing a few story details – the strengths are the same, my issues with it are identical, only the setting has changed. Leaving behind Victorian England and its unnamed mad painter, this game takes place on an unnamed Titanic-esque ocean liner and puts you in the shoes of an unnamed mad actor, preparing for a role in a new film helmed by an unnamed mad director. As you explore the vessel, you'll find that space, time, and reality warp and twist, sending you on a nightmarish theme park ride of the actor’s life as framed by horror cinema history.
The game is divided into five chapters, each of which consist mostly of walking forward through corridors as jump scares and surreal imagery are triggered by your presence. I mentioned a theme park ride because that is really what it feels like: things are happening around you, without your input, and with few exceptions there is an understanding that there are no real stakes. You might get splashed by some water or blasted by a fog machine, but you’ve got your seat belt on and nothing will actually hurt you. Don’t worry, it’s not real.
What that means here is that you’ll walk down a corridor, enter a room, then exit only to find yourself in that same corridor, only this time things are slightly rearranged. You walk past a door, it slams shut. You open it and there’s nothing inside the room. You walk to an intersection and see a mannequin around the corner, bathed in a mysterious light. A light flashes, and now the mannequin is posed differently.
Used sparingly, these kinds of events might ratchet up the tension and evoke the sense of otherworldly or sinister forces, but when the game throws this kind of thing at you relentlessly, without regard for the peaks and valleys of well-paced horror, it starts to become toothless, even nonsensical. It’s very hard to feel scared when there is no time either to build suspense or deal with any potential consequences.
This disconnect extends to the storytelling, which is so obsessed with being enigmatic and vague that it constantly holds you at arm’s length. It’s a character study without characters, attempting to tell its tale mostly through visual metaphors. That’s not inherently a bad idea! But in practice, Layers’ metaphorical devices veer between two extremes: too obvious and too obscure. Often they are entirely on-the-nose – mannequins and mirrors and clay figures – hammered repeatedly to the point that the only reaction is “okay, I get it!” But the broader strokes of the narrative are kept so vague that it’s entirely possible to get every ending available and still have next to no clue what took place.
Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as leaving things open to interpretation can be wonderfully evocative and deeply compelling. But it doesn’t work here. Instead of being intrigued, I found myself just not caring at all. I think the biggest issue is that, for a game so focused on representing an actor’s inner psychology, we get almost no sense of who this person, or really anyone in the story, actually is. The protagonist’s history is doled out in bits and pieces scattered across the chapters, mostly relayed via disembodied voice-overs but also sometimes literal scraps of newspaper or letters, which often have names, locations, and specifics etched out. Much of the dialogue is purple prose full of grandiose proclamations that don’t actually seem to say much: "A tide rises in the veins of the world. Do you hear it?” And yet for all its obfuscation, in the end the story is a whole lot of hullabaloo that comes down to ‘actor uses acting to hide from previous tragedy.’
If I seem particularly focused on the storytelling, that’s because there’s not much else going on here. The few puzzles work on a bizarre dream-logic level but don’t require a whole lot of thought, seeing as they are often comprised of the only interactive elements in a given room. There are also a few chase sequences where getting caught results in instant death and being reset back to the beginning of the chase. These are mostly trial and error and serve more to annoy than to thrill, but they are relatively short and only take a few tries before the intended route becomes clear. There are also a few collectibles hidden throughout the world, consisting of audio recordings and photos that help to ever-so-slightly illuminate the backstory.
Allow me to gush positively for a bit, though. Every single Bloober Team game has looked fantastic and Layers of Fear 2 is no exception. The game melds the ocean liner settings with a dreamlike infusion of different eras of film history, from the earliest days of silent film through 1970s horror. There are nods of varying scope to a number of classic films, whether it’s the iconic Overlook Hotel carpet from The Shining to an entire chapter taking place in a sepia-toned expressionistic nightmare inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. While there’s joy to be found in spotting these references, they don’t really add anything to a better understanding or experience, and instead are more likely to remind you of far better horror experiences as you play.
But even so, they along with the rest of the game look exceptionally good. The environments blend highly realistic and detailed architecture with surreal imagery in compelling ways, and the interplay of light and shadow would make the referenced cinematographers proud. There’s an impressive amount of variety as well: while the first Layers stuck mostly to the musty corridors of the protagonist’s house, the sequel branches far beyond the ship you start on, dipping into movie studio backlots, industrial hellscapes and pirate coves in various states of psychedelic disarray. While I’m still partial to >observer_’s cyberpunk stylings, Layers of Fear 2 is quite the stunner. It sounds great as well: the melancholy string music and soundscapes are immersive, doing more to inject the game with tension and scares than any of the other elements, and the voice acting is quite good considering how much of the dialogue is delivered by children.
There are multiple endings in Layers of Fear 2, determined by making different choices at four different points where you are given a chance to obey or disobey commands from the disembodied voice of the director. A single time through takes 3-4 hours, but subsequent playthroughs are exactly the same other than the immediate aftermath of each choice and the final ending cutscene. Still, it adds some replayability to what is otherwise a pretty modest package. That said, even after having seen all three endings, I don’t know if I could tell you with much certainty what happens in the game. While in some cases that might drive me to analyze further, or seek out more information online, or replay the game to glean more of the narrative, here I just found myself shrugging.
Perhaps if I had a better sense of who the characters were or what they wanted – cryptic notes about ‘building the character’ notwithstanding – I would appreciate the rest of the game more. Without that there’s just so little to anchor you to the story being unveiled. There’s an attempt at Lynchian horror and weirdness, but without Lynch’s knack for grounding his insanity in the universal and deeply relatable. And as a hyper-linear, story-driven experience with little in the way of actual gameplay, there’s not much else to discuss. Layers of Fear 2 looks absolutely incredible, it sounds good, and there are a handful of very clever moments. Unfortunately, the narrative glue just isn’t strong enough to hold the experience together.